The richest man in the world . . . a “space” entrepreneur of innovative companies . . . a cult genius who wants to populate Mars . . . These are the images most Ukrainians associated with Elon Musk. He was insanely popular even before the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation. His entrepreneur’s decision to let Ukraine use Starlink satellite communication systems made him basically a national hero. This bright highlight, the contribution of the American billionaire to the Ukrainian fight against the aggressor country, was short-lived. Musk soon after decided to propose a “revolutionary” plan for the reconciliation of Russia and Ukraine. With just a few tweets, Musk outraged the whole of Ukraine, and became “one of their own” in Russia. But should we be surprised by such changes of Elon? Fortunately or not, the Internet remembers all of his past infamous antics and statements. So let’s figure out what was wrong with Elon Musk even before his tweets about the “peace plan”.
EDIT: Since this article got published in Ukrainian, Elon Musk closed the deal on buying Twitter and, subsequently, followed with a series of executive decisions which raised concerns about censorship on the platform. Prior to banning accounts of multiple journalists who have covered Musk and his companies before, Twitter removed Ukraine from the list of phone number country codes that can be used to sign up or log into the platform. The “bug” was fixed; however, the worry about future attempts by the new Twitter CEO to deplatform or silence Ukrainians remains.
What is Elon Musk known for?
– American entrepreneur-innovator
– Founder of SpaceX companies (an aerospace enterprise that provides transport and communication services)
– CEO of Tesla Inc., which manages the Tesla factory (production of electric cars)
– PayPal (international electronic payment system)
– Neuralink (development of technologies for the interaction of the human brain with electronic devices)
– Person of the Year (2021) by CNN Business
– Time Person of the Year (2021)
– Richest person in the world
– Seeks to colonize Mars
Doubtful Grand Ideas
In his tweet on October 3, 2022, Musk offered his vision of “peace” for Ukraine and Russia. This is what he proposed: hold repeated referendums under the supervision of the UN on the occupied territories of Ukraine; “leave these territories to Russia, if that is the will of the people”; restore the “justice” of 1783; recognize Crimea as Russia’s territory; Ukraine should supply water for the peninsula; and Ukraine should assume a position of neutrality. Musk decided to do a crash test of such a “plan” by offering a survey where his followers could decide whether the residents of Crimea, southern, and eastern Ukraine have the right to independently choose which country to stay with. What’s wrong with this “plan”? Everything. Any concessions to Russia ultimately mean a continuation of the war. History suggests that the Russian Federation cannot satisfy its imperial appetites by seizing one sovereign country. So one day, a missile attack may wake up residents of any city in Europe or Asia, whichever one Russia decides to consider its own. Therefore, Musk’s “compromise” for this full-scale war looked as if those points were given to him directly from the Kremlin. But Musk’s talent for producing bad ideas should not be underestimated.
If the “global problems of humanity” that Musk is trying to solve are not taken into account, then one can really consider him a person with an innovative way of thinking. However, the billionaire’s ideas are often actively criticized by experts in various fields. For example, urbanists have long proved wrong the usefulness and effectiveness of such projects as Hyperloop and Booring Loop, which were presented as a solution to the transport problems of large cities with the help of futuristic “capsules” that move at super speed in vacuum tunnels. Such technology is too expensive and not adapted to different urban landscapes, in particular their topography. The implementation of those ideas, which in the end will not solve transportation problems (and may even create new ones), will take tens of years. In addition, according to Musk’s concept, the projects will cover the needs of only a small percentage of the population. Instead of investing in Elon’s expensive and unrealistic ideas, urban planners advise others to improve existing public transport systems.
Elon Musk tells people that he is inspired by science fiction. This explains some of his ideas being sometimes so unfeasable and delusional. Musk got his desire to start Neuralink, a company that specialises in technology of interaction between a computer and the human brain after reading a series of novels, “Culture” by Iain Banks. The science fiction writer described such a technology in his work. Also, experts are as highly skeptical of Neuralink’s technological developments as of Hyperloop. Miguel Nicolelis is a pioneer in neuroscience, particularly in the field of brain-computer interaction, and a Brazilian scientist and professor. He denies the innovativeness of Musk’s idea referring to his own scientific achievements from previous years. Miguel claims that the American businessman “doesn’t know anything about neuroscience or what the brain is”, but credits him for selling “things that will never work”.
Elon Musk also tried to find a new way of content fact-checking and media accountability. Incensed by publications that highlighted Tesla’s string of financial, corporate, and safety problems in 2018, Musk decided to create a website where readers could publicly “rate the truthfulness” of each article and, over time, track the veracity rating of journalists and media. Fortunately, the idea stuck to a few tweets because relying on the fact that readers can judge the veracity of articles in any language and on any topic is simply unreasonable. Such a website would not solve the problem of fakes and misinformation but confirmed how often people have limited or biased knowledge on certain topics. According to Musk’s idea, users would have rated articles with a credibility level from 1 to 5 points.
Grand and yet untested ideas seem quite normal; and technical progress is generally built on experiments, most of which fail. However, Elon Musk spends millions of dollars on his ambitious projects without consulting professionals who could soberly assess their effectiveness. Musk’s companies also attract significant investments that could be redirected to support projects or scientific research and truly change the quality of life on a global level.
PR Masked As Philanthropy
Like most influential and wealthy people, Elon Musk is concerned about his popularity and public image. His frequent participation in American shows easily proves this, as well as appearances in films and TV series. The image of the world’s richest man, innovator and businessman is too trivial for Musk. Unlike other millionaires, who are often condemned for minimal contribution to development of society, Elon strives to stand out among them and become almost a superhero who saves humanity from all disasters. To achieve this goal, Musk often shows off in front of his supporters and critics that he does not shy away from spending his earnings for a good cause. However, the businessman’s philanthropic actions, just like his ideas, many of which only appear to be innovative, are not so altruistic.
One infamous example is the scandal involving Musk’s failed attempt to help rescue 12 boys stuck in a cave in Thailand with their coach in 2018. The whole world tensely watched for 10 days how engineers, divers, and experts from all over the globe tried to save the children. The only exit from the cave was a flooded passage, which was the problem. In addition, that tunnel was so narrow in some places that even divers had to take off their scuba gear to swim through. Musk and his team developed a minisubmarine and sent it to Thailand. However, the coordinator of the rescue operation and an experienced cave diver from Great Britain, Vernon Unsworth, rejected Musk’s invention, assuring that it was unsuitable for the mission, and called the gesture of the innovator a “PR prank”. It seemed that Musk could take the situation with dignity, emphasizing his good intentions, but instead, the businessman was extremely indignant and without reason called Unsworth a paedophile on his Twitter. That was an irrational behaviour, it rather indicates the fragility of the billionaire’s ego, who simply did not like that someone else became a hero in this story.
A similar case of PR for charity was Musk’s attempt to solve the problem of hunger in the world. David Beasley, the Chief Director of the World Food Program (WFP) of the United Nations, called on Musk to solve the problem in the fall of 2021. In his tweet, Beasley congratulated the businessman on becoming the richest man in the world with an estimated fortune of $221 billion, noting that just $6.6 billion (3% of Musk’s fortune) could help save 42 million people from starvation. Musk publicly agreed to sell Tesla shares and give the proceeds to ONN SPP if the director of the program would publicly explain how exactly this money could end world hunger. “But the accounting must be open to the public so that people can see exactly how the funds are spent”, the businessman added. These demands seemed reasonable because such international organizations as the UN, the Red Cross and others are often criticized for inefficient spending of charitable donations on high salaries of executives, elite office buildings, expensive corporate equipment, etc. The director of the UN SPP quickly sent the billionaire a detailed plan of use of funds and assured that the UN already had an open system that allowed tracking where and how the funds were spent on various programs.
The headline “Elon Musk is ready to donate 6.6 billion dollars to stop world hunger” spread throughout the world’s media, strengthening the image of the billionaire and respect of his supporters. However, as of October 2022, almost a year after Musk and the director of the UN SPP’s Twitter spat, the organization has not received any concrete response from the businessman regarding the charitable offer. Meanwhile, according to the public report from the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Musk did sell nearly $6 billion worth of Tesla stock in 2021, sending the proceeds “to charity.” However, this is all that is known about the fate of those funds. Since then, no organization has reported receiving charitable contributions from Musk. Experts in philanthropy assume that the billionaire simply transferred these funds to a donor fund, which serves as a “safe box” where one can keep charitable funds for years, gradually transferring them to organizations in the form of grants. Such donor funds benefit billionaires and give them considerable advantages significantly reducing taxes on the amounts transferred to charity. On the other hand, the US legislation does not specify a specific plan and terms for spending charitable funds. While the media write that Elon Musk donated 6 billion dollars for good cause, no one can answer the question of where exactly these funds went. Ironically, Musk, who was the first to demand maximum transparency from the UN Security Council, is not guided by this principle himself.
Who Actually Pays For Starlink In Ukraine?
At the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Elon Musk responded to the request of the Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov and transferred a number of Starlink satellite Internet communication systems to Ukraine. The systems can provide a high-speed wireless Internet to the most remote places, where the Internet service is often simply not available. So this is an extremely important service for the defense of Ukrainian cities and villages because the Ukrainian military can successfully engage in aerial reconnaissance and deliver high-precision strikes to eliminate the invaders. Communication is what helps civilians survive during occupation in the war zone. The Russian military, of course, is trying in every possible way to damage the communication lines in order to prevent Ukrainians from resisting.
Such solidarity and help gained respect and gratitude of millions of Ukrainians, who considered Musk one of the most influential people that supported Ukraine. So it was until the billionaire posted a series of tweets with his views on “de-escalation” of the Russion-Ukrainian war. Musk’s views turned out to be basically identical to Russian propaganda narratives. In other words, the businesman proposed to ignore Ukraine and its sovereignty and give Russia what it wants. Musk was struck by the wave of Ukrainian indignation, and immediately started to prove that he actually supported Ukraine, and said the Starlink system was a proof of that. “We gave Starlink to Ukraine and lost over $80 million exposing SpaceX and myself to Russian cyber attacks”, the businessman tweeted. However, instead of normally conducting a dialogue on Twitter with Ukrainians and their supporters, Musk simply started blocking everyone who criticized and tagged him. “The biggest bot attack I’ve ever seen”, he tweeted.
Musk’s bragging about his “donations” to aid Ukraine sparked another wave of outrage among the Ukrainian military and volunteers who purchased these communication systems and monthly subscription to the service themselves. Since the start of the full-scale invasion, more than 20,000 Starlink systems arrived to Ukraine, but not all of them were gifts from SpaceX and its owner. According to a CNN investigation, about 85% of those satellite Internet communication systems were financed by various countries (the US, Poland, Great Britain) and volunteer organizations. Moreover, they continue to finance 30% of the cost of monthly service fees and maintenance of the Starlink systems. Strangely enough, Elon Musk did not even try to give credit to the partners in this project, because this would reduce his personal merit in public eyes.
The Starlink systems started experiencing multiple failures across Ukraine by a strange coincidence, which happened a week after Musk’s infamous tweets and the “jackal express” from the Ukrainians. Musk and Ukrainian authorities refused to comment on the cause of this problem, but in the meantime it became known that the Pentagon received a letter from SpaceX with a request to take over the funding of the service in Ukraine. “We are unable to continue donating terminals to Ukraine or funding existing terminals for an indefinite period of time,” SpaceX’s sales director wrote in his letter to the Pentagon in September, 2022. This position of the company disappointed the international community and Ukrainians even more because soldiers and civilians die every day for peace in Ukraine and the world, while someone thinks about profits. Obviously, if Musk completely refused to fund Starlink systems for Ukrainians, he would have lost his role of a hero in this story and undermined his reputation as a philanthropist. Therefore, after a few days, the billionaire changed his mind and decided to continue covering the cost of the Internet service for Starlink in Ukraine. “To hell with it… while Starlink is still losing money and other companies are getting billions of taxpayer dollars, we’ll just keep funding the Ukrainian government for free”, Musk tweeted.
Considering the previous demonstrative acts of charity, Musk obviously treats the transfer of Starlink systems to Ukraine as another PR campaign. If he did it solely for altruistic reasons understanding the moral, value, and importance of such assistance to a country that is defending itself from the worst terror in the 21st century, then he would not be concerned about “losses” for business. SpaceX’s revenue exceeds $2 billion a year. Even if the cost of Starlink “charity” terminals will be about $100 million per year, as Musk himself predicts, it is only 5% of the company’s total revenue. Is it really too much to save the lives of thousands of Ukrainians and deter Russia from further aggressive plans? After all, the oliticians of the world understand that Ukraine has become the place where the war broke out, and the Ukrainian military is carrying a shield for Europe, preventing the aggression of the Russian Federation from spreading out to other countries.
It seems that by transferring the Starlink systems to Ukraine in the spring of 2022, Elon Musk was hoping that the full-scale war of Russia against Ukraine would end much faster. However, contrary to his beliefs, Ukrainians refused to give up their territories to Russia and decided to fight for freedom and their land as long as necessary.
Dissemination Of Disinformation And Russian Narratives
If someone was surprised by disinformation in Elon Musk’s tweets about Ukraine or still believed that he was an innovator who just didn’t always have time to understand the situation, then we have bad news for you: this is not the first blunder of the American billionaire. He often uses Twitter as a platform for trolling, ridiculing his critics, and spreading false information. It is difficult to prove the intentions of the latter, but given his incredible popularity and more than a hundred million followers on Twitter, Musk still bears a huge social responsibility for the information and ideas he spreads. After all, a tweet can collapse share prices of Tesla, and also, for example, provoke the spread of a dangerous virus. Thus, in March 2020, the billionaire downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and called the panic surrounding it “stupid” at the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic. As for an educated person with innovative thinking and extensive professional activity, Musk was absolutely wrong about the speed of the virus’s spread ignoring the forecasts of epidemiologists. “Based on the current trend, the US will also likely have close to 0 new cases (diseases) by the end of April”, the billionaire wrote on March 19, 2020. Contrary to Musk’s beliefs, on April 30, 2020, more than 30,000 new cases of COVID-19 infection were registered in the United States. With his false predictions and statements that belittle the danger of the virus, Musk reinforced the propaganda and misinformation about COVID-19 pandemic, which, by the way, Russia so painstakingly produced around the world.
Of course, Musk’s tweets about the coronavirus may coincidentally be similar to the narratives of Russian propagandists, the same cannot be said for his thoughts on Ukraine’s “reconciliation” with Russia. Claims about a “historically Russian Crimea”, holding any referendums in the occupied territories, the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, and shifting responsibility to Ukraine in resolving the “conflict” — all this seems to be taken directly from the Kremlin’s propaganda. “It’s clear that he’s broadcasting Putin’s messages,” said Fiona Gill, a former member of the US Security Council, who specializes in Russian politics. In an interview for the American publication Politico, Gill assured that it was not the first time that Putin used influential and famous people, including businessmen, as intermediaries.
Later, the information emerged that Musk had indeed spoken with Putin before publicly announcing his “brilliant” plan to end the war. Ian Bremmer, the head of the consulting company Eurasia Group, who specializes in political analysis, said that he learned from Musk himself that he spoke with Putin and heard his demands: recognize Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia as Russian, as well as ensure neutrality of Ukraine. In response to questions about the veracity of such a statement, Bremmer assured that he had been writing his newsletter on the topic of geopolitics for the closed community Eurasia Group for more than 24 years and he had no intention of misleading people: “I write honestly, without fear or favor, and this week’s news did not differ in any way (in terms of reliability)”. Elon Musk completely denied this information, but can you take his word for it? The spread of misinformation can only undermine the professional authority of Ian Bremmer and the reputation of his organization, and considering the fact that Putin has already used influential people for his own purposes, it is quite likely that he really came into direct contact with Musk.
A careful observation of the actions and statements of Elon Musk shows that the billionaire does not justify the world’s affection and praise that he currently has. The people’s need to admire heroes and idols, or craving for a strong and reliable leader in the community can explain the phenomenon of Musk’s popularity. Of course, modern information technologies facilitate the ascent of ambitious people to the spotlight of public attention and recognition. However, whether these opinion leaders are aware of their responsibility and even duties to the community is debatable, and in the context of full-scale wars, it is never rhetorical.
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